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Refugee crises push the limits of capacity

Conflicts around the world forced more than 65 million people to leave their homes. On average, 28,300 people a day flee conflict or persecution.

Red Cross responders in Sudan's Darfur region
Red Cross responders in Sudan's Darfur region (AN/Boris Heger)

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — Conflicts around the world have forced more than 65 million people to leave their homes and seek safety somewhere else. That includes nearly 22.5 million refugees, and 10 million others who lack nationality and cannot move freely or access things like education, jobs and health care.

"Leaving your home, and abandoning what you worked hard to build, is not something that anyone does voluntarily. But this was the only choice my parents had," Foni Joyce Vuni, a South Sudanese refugee living in Kenya with her parents and four siblings, told a summit on refugees at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Vuni, who is now in her 20's — and has become a prominent advocate for the needs of millions of youth refugees while graduating with honors with a university degree in mass communications — recalled trekking through the night towards Uganda and traveling for 17 days to Nimule, a border town, where her father met a truck driver who helped get the family to Kenya, a place they had not planned to go.

"In July 1991, when civil war ravaged my home country, my parents feared for our lives. They knew that we were not safe in South Sudan, as my father was a journalist who was wrongly accused of being an informant and collaborating with rebels," Vuni told a 2016 U.N. summit in remarks posted by the Women's Refugee Commission.

"The best way to address these challenges is to give refugees the tools that we need to become the engineers of peace, stability, and development to rebuild their nation," she said. "Refugee youth want the same things young people everywhere want: to be consulted, to be listened to, to contribute, to engage, and to be part of solutions."

More than half of the world's refugees are younger than 18. Some 55% come from Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

The biggest numbers of displaced people have been taken in by Turkey (2.9 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million), Iran (979,400), Uganda (940,800) and Ethiopia (791,600).

On average, 28,300 people a day worldwide flee their homes due to conflict or persecution.

Despite the troubling figures from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, the world's financial help for displaced people has lagged — raising broad concerns among international organizations that a lack of resources can destabilize neighbors and regions.

Spreading responsibility

Since the Syrian war began in 2011, more than 11 million people have been internally displaced or fled to neighboring states, namely Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

Denmark-based Voluntas Advisory management consultancy firm reported in April this has put an incredible strain on host societies in neighboring countries, despite the more than US$13 billion in aid from the international community, including 300 organizations. The aid still falls short.

"For most of the key challenges faced by vulnerable groups, such as access to food, employment and security, the severity of those challenges is perceived to have declined compared to last year," the firm said. The one exception was Turkey, it said, where "most challenges have increased in severity" likely to due to internal political turmoil and a deal with the European Union.

The firm also noted witness accounts of forced deportations in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

"The greatest challenge to the Syria response is the lack of inclusion of affected people in decision-making," it said. "With Europe being increasingly difficult to reach for Syrian refugees, the continued movement of Syrian refugees will put further strains on countries in and around the region."

A division of wealth

The world's poorest countries continue to shoulder the burden of the global refugee crisis, according to UNHCR, which says developing regions host 84% of all refugees. The U.N. refugee agency notes part of the reason is the many conflict-ridden countries by poor neighbors.

Such concerns have aired for years. Four years ago, the then-head of UNHCR, António Guterres, now the U.N. secretary-general, issued a warning to the world at a press conference in Geneva.

"Failing to provide enough humanitarian support for Syrian refugees by the end of 2014 could result in dramatic consequences for refugees and the stability of the entire region, including a serious security threat to Lebanon," he said of Lebanon’s refugee crisis, which, in 2018, was in its eighth year and putting a big strain on the small debt-ridden nation's weak economy.

When international donors pledged US$10.2 billion in loans and US$860 million in gifts to help Lebanon at a Paris conference in April, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri emphasized his nation's stability was at stake, and its collapse could affect the Middle East and Europe. Lebanon's 1 million refugees account for almost one of every four of its residents.

"It is not the stability of Lebanon alone," said Hariri, who noted Lebanon's growth shrunk to 1%, down from 8%. "This is the stability of the region and, therefore, of our world."

A few weeks later, at a European Union-hosted conference in Brussels, international donors pledged US$4.4 billion in humanitarian aid in 2018 for Syria and its neighbors who took in its refugees. That fell far short of the more than US$7 billion the United Nations sought.

Now, UNHCR and the international community are working on a global compact for refugees and migrants to improve the world's collective response and spread responsibility. Proponents hope the U.N. General Assembly will adopt it this year.  The Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration takes place at Morocco in December.

The fighting in Syria killed an estimated 450,000 people since President Bashar Assad's government cracked down on demonstrators in 2011.

"People in shelters. People in half-destroyed homes. People in detention centers. People living under the stars," Dominik Stillhart, operations director for the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, said in Brussels. "The life-compass of a generation has been ripped from their hands. Children are growing up, knowing nothing but fear and uncertainty, bomb and bullet."

Another US$3.4 billion was pledged for 2019 and 2010. But the U.N. says more than 5.6 million people fled Syria since then and millions more are displaced within Syria, making for 13 million Syrians who badly need humanitarian assistance. A quarter of Syria's population is displaced in neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Jordan's minister of water and irrigation, Ali Al-Ghezai, appealed in May for help from international organizations and donors to improve conditions for Jordan's Za’atari refugee camp, where thousands of Syrian refugees live, and its surrounding environment and water supply.

In response, the German government is investing millions of euros in Jordan's water and sanitation networks. “Jordan is facing an enormous pressure with regard to its scarce water resources and this pressure has been growing over the last years due to the influx of refugees," Germany's ambassador to Jordan, Birgitta Siefker-Eberle, said at the camp in May.